The drummer in the woods


THIS week my husband Alan heard a great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) drumming. We used to hear and see them quite often in the south London suburbs – they sometimes visited our feeders – but they seem more unusual in Lancashire.

If you haven’t heard a woodpecker drumming before, you would probably think it was a piece of machinery in action. The bird pecks on a resonant surface, usually dead wood but occasionally telegraph poles or metalwork such as piping, at an astonishing rate of up to 22 strikes per second, though ten to 15 is more usual. Here is a great slow-motion video.

You can see from this how intensely the bird’s head and neck are jarred. It is prevented from being concussed by a shock-absorbing spongy plate between the skull and the beak, combined with some other adaptations. You can read about this in more detail here.

The males (identifiable by a red patch on the back of the neck) start drumming in February. It serves the same purpose as singing for other birds, to warn off rival males and attract females. As spring progresses females start drumming in reply. The pair may find a suitable hole to nest in or they will drill one. They also use the technique to crack nuts and open pine cones, placing them in a cleft of wood for the purpose.

I’m afraid that the beak is also used for less peaceful purposes, including enlarging the hole in wooden nest-boxes to gain access to the chicks of smaller birds inside, raiding the nest holes of willow tits, and destroying house martin colonies on houses.

It is good to be able to say that numbers are increasing, up by 300 per cent since the 1970s to about 40,000 pairs in Britain. It’s thought the species may have benefited from an increase in dead wood caused by Dutch elm disease, as well as the availability of food in gardens. This runs counter to the conservationists’ complaint that they are turfed out of their nest holes by non-indigenous ring-necked parakeets, which are also on the increase. I really doubt that the parakeets are a problem to the woodpeckers – if it came to a fight between that lethal beak and the small hooked bill of the seed-eating parakeet, I know which I would put my money on.


THE first bulbs of the spring are flowering in my pots.

These are iris reticulata which come in various shades of blue, and are about 6ins high. I am not sure what is going to come up where this year because when we got our labrador pup in the summer he amused himself by methodically digging up most of the dormant bulbs from their pots. I could tell the difference between daffodils, hyacinths and tulips but a lot of it was guesswork as I stuffed them back, muttering about wretched dogs.


Sheep of the Week

agriflanders, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

THIS is a Bleu du Maine which as the name suggests comes from France, though its ancestry is largely British. You can see a much better picture here.

The breed was developed in the historic Maine region of western France in the mid-19th century by crossing the Wensleydale (which I wrote about here), the Leicester Longwool (which I will write about another time) and the now extinct French Choletais. It was first imported commercially into Britain in 1982 and there are now small flocks throughout the country.

It is a large sheep with a bald, blue grey head (contributed by the Wensleydale ancestors). If I were being unkind I might say it has a face that only a mother could love. Neither sex has horns. Ewes have a long, broad pelvis, and give birth very easily, on average to two lambs, and can easily feed three. The breed is raised for meat, but the soft fleece is popular with hand-spinners, being free of the coarse fibres called kemp.

There isn’t much on YouTube about them, but I found this video.

You can read more about them and see some good pictures at the Bleu du Maine Sheep Society website.


IT’S not often I praise the BBC but in the last couple of weeks they have had two stunning items on their website. The first is about ‘nacreous’ cloud, which I had not heard of, let alone seen.

And here a photographer talks about the wonderful shots he has taken of ‘murmurations’ of starlings. I’ve written about this before but the spectacle never palls.


Wheels of the Week

THIS beauty is a 1936 Riley Kestrel, 1479cc. At the time of registration it was listed as black, so it must have been resprayed at some point.

The pictures were sent to me by Brian Meredith, who spotted it outside the Golden Lion Hotel in Easenhall, a village just north of Rugby, in July last year. He told me: ‘Unfortunately, neither the sun nor the hedge were in the best place for a really well-exposed photograph, but since I could move neither, I did the best I could.’

I was able to find another picture of the same car on another website.

1936 Riley Kestrel Saloon

The Riley Kestrel was manufactured between 1933 and 1936, one of many variants of the Riley Nine which went into production in Coventry in 1926, and was one of the most successful British cars in the inter war period. (Oddly enough the Nine was preceded by the Eleven and Twelve.)

It was largely designed by two of the five Riley brothers: Stanley was responsible for the chassis, suspension and body and Percy designed the 1087cc engine. At its launch in July 1926 there were two body styles, a fabric bodied saloon called the Monaco at £285 (£13,300 now) and a fabric four-seat tourer for £235 (£11,900). The saloon could reach 60 mph (97 km/h) and give 40 mpg, which seems extraordinarily economical for those days. (Query: does ‘fabric-bodied’ really mean made of woven material?)

The Kestrel was described as a ‘4 light Streamlined saloon’.

The Riley Kestrel name was revived in 1965 as the last of a number of variants of the BMC 1100/1300 range, but dropped in 1968. You can see a picture here. 

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